WWW Newfoundland: Poetry of Place Workshop

by Dr. Jessie Voigts /
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Mar 17, 2015 / 0 comments

Information for discussion on Poetry of Place, for WWW
    Hosted by Suban Nur Cooley and Carolyne Whelan

"Remember" by Joy Harjo

Remember the sky that you were born under,
know each of the star's stories.
Remember the moon, know who she is. I met her
In a bar once in Iowa City.
Remember the sun's birth at dawn, that is the
strongest point of time. Remember sundown
and the giving away to night.
Remember your birth, how your mother struggled
to give you form and breath. You are evidence of
her life, and her mother's, and hers.
Remember your father. He is your life also.
Remember the earth whose skin you are:
red earth, black earth, yellow earth, white earth
brown earth, we are earth.
Remember the plants, trees, animal life who all have their
tribes, their families, their histories, too. Talk to them,
listen to them. They are alive poems.
Remember the wind. Remember her voice. She knows the
origin of this universe. I heard her singing Kiowa war
dance songs at the corner of Fourth and Central once.
Remember that you are all people and that all people are you.
Remember that you are this universe and that this universe is you.
Remember that all is in motion, is growing, is you.
Remember that language comes from this.
Remember the dance that language is, that life is.
About Poetry of Place
from Windfall Journal's website

Against the current tide of globalization, we posit its opposite, "localization." As Wendell Berry points out in The Unsettling of America, our culture and our literature valorize moving on, lighting out for the territory ahead of the rest, as opposed to staying in one place and knowing it well. However, our identity is tied to place: We don't know who we are unless we know where we are. "In this hemisphere," writes Scott Russell Sanders in Staying Put, "many of the worst abuses--of land, forests, animals, and communities--have been carried out by 'people who root themselves in ideas rather than places.'"
Paul Shepard thinks that the lack or denial of our connection to the plants and animals in a given place makes us crazy. Rootless, detached people are dangerous. On the other hand, sanity happens when people understand that where they are is who they are.
Among contemporary poets, Mary Oliver has been one of the most articulate in stressing the importance for both poets and readers of poetry to connect poetry to the natural world. "Poetry was born in the relationship between men of earth and the earth itself," she says. "Poetry is a product of our history, and our history is inseparable from the natural world."
A poetry of place is a poetry which values locales, which sees and lets the reader experience what makes a place unique among places. Much contemporary poetry focuses on psychological states, feelings, intellectual concepts, or language play totally devoid of reference to the real, lived, sensually experienced and infinitely varied physical world. Poetry of place may focus on such interior subjects, but it lets us experience them more profoundly and more authentically because they’re rooted in a specific time and place.
In its fullest sense, the term "place" in poetry includes not only the geographical location and natural environment, but the history of human presence and before. "Place" includes the people living there now, and, as in all poetry, the voice of the speaker of the poem. As Leslie Marmon Silko says, "Viewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on." The speaker may be passing through, or better yet, a longtime resident of a place whose utterance might be instantly recognizable to other residents, while simultaneously offering insight to strangers resident elsewhere.
The representation of nonhuman realities may be the greatest challenge of all. The language of myth, especially in the shape-shifting Paleolithic imagination, may be the closest we have come to a verbal representation of animals and landscape. In the Paleolithic world, as described by Calvin Martin, the human relation to nature is direct, intimate, physical, and spiritual in an animistic sense. Beyond myth, the verbal means remaining to us have included images, metaphors, and the pathetic fallacy.  We believe  some new mode must be found, based in the concrete image, some equivalent to the revival of myth in contemporary terms, a transformation of history. Renewing the human relation to nature depends upon poets taking up this challenge.
We hope to encounter again a poetry that finds a pure delight in being alive in the here and now. Such delight is not exclusive to poetry directly expressing exuberance or ecstasy, but occurs whenever the poet reflects the external world in concrete detail, lovingly observed, even in darker moods. And surely, our strong emotions generated by "political poems" often stem from feelings of delight cut short by the hubris and shortsightedness of those who would dispose of nature itself--source of our common meaning and sustenance--for power or profit. In positive terms, we recognize through the resonance of the poem the texture of our own relation to some other place, a spiritual dimension. We hope that Windfall can be a source of such sustenance.
"The Sense of Place" is the subject, and the title, which Seamus Heaney chose for a lecture given in the Ulster Museum in January 1977 and which is reprinted in Preoccupations1. Much of what I have to say will be, of course, based on that lecture, although I won’t, I hope, be guilty of plagiarism since Heaney’s illustrations of his theme are taken from other poets: Wordsworth, Yeats, Kavanagh, Montague, Hewitt or, more briefly, Derek Mahon, Michael Longley and Paul Muldoon and not from his own work which will be my main, if not my sole, concern.
            2 Ibid., 136.
Seamus Heaney is quite aware that the sense of place and "the relationship between a literature and a locale with its common language" are not a "particularly Irish phenomenon"2 but, he asserts, "the peculiar fractures in our history, north and south, and... (the) possession of the land and possession of different languages" have rendered them more important and significant in Ireland.
"To know who you are, you have to have a place to come from", Carson McCullers stated, and what is true everywhere of the man in the street is perhaps truer still for the poet who, even if he comes from peasant stock, has been forced to swap the plough for the stars. Yeats’ insistence on being rooted, whether when referring to himself or to John Millington Synge, Heaney equating the spade and the pen:
            3 Seamus Heaney, Death of a Naturalist, London, Faber and Faber, 1966, 57, p. 14; Selected Poems (SP (...)
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.3
have always struck me, personally, as typical instances of wishful thinking.
But mad Ireland, -- more than any other country, -- is bound to hurt her poets into making sure that they belong, and where they belong.
            4 Patrick Rafroidi, L’Irlande et le Romantisme, Lille, PUL, Paris, Editions Universitaires, 1972, (...)
            5 Andrew Carpenter ed., Place, Personality and the Irish Writer, Gerrards, Cross, Colin Smythe, 1977 (...)
            6 Preoccupations, 181-189.
            7 See my paper: "Goldsmith ou la Géographie du Coeur", Etudes Irlandaises, IX, 1984, 97-105.
            8 "A manuscript which we have lost the skill to read", Preoccupations, 132.
It is not only a question of historical fractures. Many scholars, — including myself4, have insisted, before Heaney, on the inevitable link between soil or landscape and the creative imagination in Ireland. One of the conferences of IASAIL (Galway, 1976) was devoted to "Place, Personality and the Irish Writer" and in the published proceedings of that conference5, Pr. A. Norman Jeffares, among others, stresses the fact that part of the distinctiveness of what he calls Anglo-Irish literature is the constant preoccupation of the authors with the physical entity of Ireland, something typical of Gaelic nature poetry, as Heaney himself reminds us in another essay of his (The God in the Tree)6, but which is transferred very early to Irish literature in English as evidenced, say, in Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village7. The Irish landscape, as Heaney tells us in A Sense of Place, after recalling a phrase by John Montague8, is composed of places steeped in association with the older culture, -- whether the world of the ancient epics or the fairy universe of thorntrees or various symbols of the other world, -- or connected with more modern instances of poetic reconstitution, or both, like Ben Bulben or Knocknarea; it comprises sites that are truly "sacramental" - those, for instance, that are linked with the wanderings of the patron-saint of Ireland, and it is no accident that the setting of the second part of our poet’s last collection, Station Island (1984) should be St. Patrick’s Purgatory on Lough Derg, already used by William Carleton, Sean O’Faolain and others.
            9 1981 for the publication in London by Faber and Faber, 70 p.
            10 Ibid., 43.
            11 Seamus Heaney: North, London, Faber and Faber, 1975, 73 p., 8; SP, 98.
            12 Preoccupations, 35.
But the historical fractures have, evidently, played their part: the little room left to the natives may very well have had an influence on their topographical minuteness even when, like Joyce, they had left the country to become town-dwellers generations ago. His father used to say of him: "If that fellow was dropped in the middle of the Sahara, he’d sit, be God, and make a map of it". Also the linguistic dispossession -- the changes of place names -- of which Brian Friel, Heaney’s friend, has made such an extraordinary dramatisation in his 1980 play: Translations9 set at the period of the Great Famine when British authorities out of love for the sister-island - this is, at least, what the commanding officer said - decided to standardise, and therefore anglicize, all such names, to make up an ordnance survey. In Friel’s work, another English officer (whose sympathy for Ireland will prove fatal) remarks, however, that "something is being eroded"10 and recites the litany of Gaelic words with love. Heaney, in his turn, finds in the name of his native farm (referred to, for instance, in the introductory poems of North11 with its double possible etymology for the second term (Mossbawn = bawn: the name the English colonists gave to their fortified farmhouses or ban, gaelic for "white")" a metaphor of the split culture of Ulster"12, and it is hardly necessary to insist on his propensity to recite the place-names of his province and express his delight in them:
            13 Seamus Heaney, Door into the Dark, London, Faber and Faber, 1969, 56 p.; SP, 52.
            14 Seamus Heaney, Wintering Out, London, Faber and Faber, 1972, 80 p., 16; SP, 58.
Strangford, Arklow, Carrickfergus
Belmullet and Ventry
Stay, forgotten like sentries.
My "place of clear water"...
Anahorish, soft gradient
of consonant, vowel-meadow...
            15 Ibid., 27; SP, 66.
            16 Ibid., 33; SP, 70.
            17 Blake Morrison, Seamus Heaney, London and New-York, Methuen, 1982, 95 p., 41.
            18 Preoccupations, 131.
and the linguistic awareness is to be found in many other poems as well, in Broagh15, in A new Song16, whenever the river Moyola is mentioned, for instance. The Antaeus-like delight of the dispossessed is obviously shared by both Heaney and Joyce, and the former’s "astonishing number of place names... dotted about his work" (I quote from Blake Morrison who has had the courage to draw up a list17) "make a good large-scale map of Ireland a useful thing to have to hand when reading him" as it is with the dinnseanches, the old Celtic poems which, as Heaney tells us in Preoccupations again18, "relate the original meanings of (these) names and constitute a form of mythological etymology".
The nature of Seamus Heaney’s interest for places is undoubtedly to be found in such ancestral practice, as well as in the dispossession and in the political desire to repossess; in instinct as well as culture. The latter distinction he makes in A Sense of Place:
            19 Ibid.
I think there are two ways in which place is known and
cherished, two ways which may be complementary but which are
just likely to be antipathetic. One is lived, illiterate and
unconscious, the other learned, literate and conscious19.
Patrick Kavanagh represents for him the first group, John Montague the second. He does not state, however, where he places himself.
Yet, we can easily find the answer elsewhere, apart from his practice, for instance in his preface to Sweeney Astray:
            20 Seamus Heaney, Sweeney Astray, a version from the Irish, Deny, Field Day Publications, 1983, XX, 7 (...)
My fundamental relation with Sweeney ... is topographical. His kingdom lay in what is now south County and north County Down, and for over thirty years I lived on the verges of that territory, in sight of some of Sweeney’s places and in earshot of others -- Slemish, Rasharkin, Benevenagh, Dunseverick, the Bann, the Roe, the Mournes - (The litany again!). When I began work on the version, I had just moved to Wicklow, not all that far from Sweeney’s final resting ground at St. Mullins20.
The departure point is not the literary connection, but the fact that the places have been linked with Heaney’s abode or abodes. The connection comes only after, as it does, for that matter, with Station Island. In the beginning is the flesh. And I am under the impression that it may remain to the end.
            21 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 56; SP, 54.
For if anything can be described as nearly obsessive in the place-poetry of our author, it definitely is the male-female relationship, the male attitude of the poet towards the female earth or country, or spot: bogland whose "wet centre is bottomless"21 is called elsewhere:
insatiable bride.
and the narrator carries on:
            22 "Kinship", North, 41-42; SP, 120-121.
I found a turf-spade
hidden under bracken,
laid flat, and overgrown
with a green fog
As I raised it
the soft lips of the growth
muttered and split
a tawny rut
opening at my feet
like a shed skin
the shaft wettish
as I sank it upright...22
Among countries described, it is not only Ireland that is shown to partake of feminity. In Night Drive:
            23 Door into the Dark, 34,; SP, 37.
Laid its loin to France on the darkened sphere23
not to mention the feminine allusion in the verb "to bleed" used a few times before describing a harvesting machine:
A combine groaning its way late
bled seeds across it work-light.
            24 North, 46.
But Ireland is, of course, foremost in descriptions of the type, in Ocean’s Love to Ireland24, in Act of Union where England speaking asserts:
And I am still imperially
Male, leaving you with the pain,
The rending process in the colony,
            25 Ibid., 49-50; SP, 125-126.
The battering ram, the boom burst from within...
No treaty
I foresee will salve completely your tracked
And stretchmarked body, the big pain
That leaves you raw, like opened ground, again25.
as it was in Traditions where her "guttural muse" was "bulled" by English poetry,
            26 Wintering Out, 31; SP, 68.
while custom, that most
sovereign mistress’
beds us down into
the British isles26.
            27 Door into the Dark, 26; SP, 34. The prose quotations come from "Feeling into Words", Preoccupation (...)
And for more limited spots, there is of course the "old spongy growth from a drain between two fields" which Heaney once saw a man clearing out and which inspired him with the poem Undine27 spoken by the freed water personified as a nympha poem which is entirely made up of one prolonged sexual metaphor:
He slashed the briars, shovelled up grey silt
To give me right of way in my own drains
And I ran quick for him, cleaned out my rust.
He halted, saw me finally disrobed,
Running clear, with apparent unconcern.
The he walked by me. I rippled and I churned
Where ditches intersected near the river
Until he dug a spade deep in my flank
And took me to him. I swallowed his trench
Gratefully, dispersing myself for love
Down in his roots, climbing his brassy grain -
But once he knew my welcome, I alone
Could give him subtle increase and reflection
He explored me so completely, each limb
Lost its cold freedom. Human, warmed to him.
More than the fact that this may be, in Heaney’s words, "a myth about agriculture, about the way water is tamed and humanized when . . . (it) becomes involved with seed", an explanation to which he did not seem to attach extraordinary importance ("it is as good as any", he said), what matters is the real human metamorphosis emphasised in the last line. Seamus Heaney does not go all the way towards pantheism as his master Wordsworth did in Tintern Abbey but he certainly courts a form of "pancosmism" in which the beauteous forms of the larger world assume the shape of his beloved creatures.
In Fosterage, the poem from North dedicated to Michael Mc Laverty, Heaney quotes the saying:
            28 North, 71; SP, 134.
Description is revelation28
the phrase applies wonderfully well to him.
Seamus Heaney’s involvement with Irish places and landscape (although he does not seem to like the latter word:
            29 Heaney, in a television inteview with Patrick Garland: "Poets on Poetry", The Listener, XC, 2.328, (...)
I don’t think of (the territory that I know) as the
Irish landscape. I think of it as a place that I
know is ordinary, and I can lay my hand on it and
know it, and the words come alive and get a kind of personality
when they’re involved with it29.
does not bind him to the peculiar limitations from which they suffer but he manages each time to find a way out.
            30 Quoted in Preoccupations, 139.
There is, first of all, the danger of excessive regionalism, which Heaney is far from being alone to fear: Irish writers would not have emphasised so heavily the universality of the local otherwise, from Yeats’ "the grass-blade carries the universe upon its point"; Joyce’s: "If I can get to the heart of Dublin, I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world. In the particular is contained the universal; "Patrick Kavanagh’s "Parochialism" is universal; it deals with the fundamentals"30.
            31 "Poetry in Northern Ireland", Twentieth Century Studies, IV, nov. 1970, 89-93.
Seamus Heaney evidently shares Derek Mahon’s search for "a voice which, whilst remaining true to the ancient intonations, (has) something to say beyond the shores of Ireland"31. The shores of Ulster might have appeared more problematic at any rate before the recent poetical flowering but surely not the West, since Synge’s Riders to the Sea. Is it on account of that already recognised universal quality that Heaney chooses the Aran Islands as the setting of his least parochial place-poem?
            32 "Lovers on Aran", Death of a Naturalist, 47; SP, 25.
The timeless waves, bright sifting, broken glass,
Came dazzling around, into the rocks,
Came glinting, sifting from the Americas
To possess Aran. Or did Aran rush
To throw wide arms of rock around a tide
That yielded with an ebb, with a soft crash?
Did sea define the land or land the sea?
Each drew new meaning from the wave’s collision.
Sea broke on land to full identity32.
            33 Door into the Dark, 51; SP, 51.
But in Shoreline33, the Northern coast is seen to partake in the general seascape of Ireland as a whole. And anyway, outside Ireland, the particular problem which I have raised would probably never arise at all...
The Irish landscape is more limited than the seascape:
            34 "Bogland", Door into the Dark, 55; SP, 53.
We have no prairies
To slice a big sun at evening -
Everywhere the eye concedes to
Encroaching horizon,
Is wooed into the cyclops’ eye
Of a tarn. Our unfenced country
Is bog that keeps crusting
Between the sights of the sun34.
            35 James Randall,"An Interview with Seamus Heaney", Ploughshares, V, 3, 1979, 7, 22, 17-19.
            36 First performed 1975, London and Boston, Faber and Faber, 1979, 70 p.
            37 Wintering Out, 23; SP, 63.
The Irish landscape, particularly if compared to the American one as sung by Theodore Roethke, is limited horizontally on the surface, but not vertically in depth, for there is the bog, another of Heaney’s obsessions, he tells us in an interview by James Randall35. The bog is linked up with the instinctive sense of place which I have been trying to foreground ("The smell of turf-smoke, for example, has a terrific nostalgic effect on me. It has to do with the script that’s written into your senses from the minute you begin to breathe") but it introduces an archeological dimension and archeology seems to have a certain fascination for Irish writers from the North: beside Heaney with his diggings, soundings or trial pieces recovered from Viking Dublin, we find Brian Friel again, this time with Volunteers36, a play inscribed to Heaney. Bogland, with the objects that can be exhumed from it, or even the buried corpses like the Iron Age Jutland Tollundman whom P. J. Glob’s The Bog People revealed, thus adds memory to the landscape. The landscape could itself offer an image of history, as in Gifts of Rain37 where such words as "lost fields", "uncastled", "planted", "cropping", "crops rotted", conjure up the Irish past. But the underground allows better to unravel the successive layers of history and consciousness, some happy, most others sinister, which are essential parts of Ireland’s history and pre-history but in some ways also common to the rest of Europe:
Some day I will go to Aarhus
            38 Wintering Out, 47-48; SP, 78-79.
Heaney says in The Tollund Man38 -- he did --
            39 My italics.
Out there in Jutland
In the old man-killing parishes
I will feel
Unhappy and at home39.
Bogland, in other words, not only brings depth into Seamus Heaney’s landscape. It also adds to its width: North, as the collection of the name showed, ceased to be Northern Ireland alone to include Scandinavia as well, there are several ways of joining the European Community.
But, as with all his Irish predecessors, there would have been no broadening process for Heaney if it had not started in the motherland to which his thoughts come back even when "westering in California" six thousand miles away, to which he will cling even when, in his later poetry, he learns
to look on nature, not as in the hour
of thoughtless youth.
and he comes to favour the inner world more than the external one.
The Poetry of Place: James Wright’s “The Secret of Light”

“If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are," claimed Wendell Berry—a rich half-truth that, although arguable, gives us valuable insight into why a poet would want to ground a poem in a specific place. “Write about what you know," intones the professor of Creative Writing. But writing about what you know would be almost as boring as writing about something of which you know nothing. More boring. The idea, then, seems to be to write about what you don’t know about what you know, bringing us into territory sufficiently complicated and uncertain to be appropriate to poetry. Negative capability, Keats has it, is "…when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact.” Negative capability also involves, as Eliot says, “a continual extinction of personality," which is the other half of Wendell Berry’s truth, the half that completes the explanation of why a poet would choose to write a poetry of place. Eliot goes on, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to escape those things.”
So the poet of place situates himself in place in order to lose himself in it. Poetry of place is actually a poetry of displacement and self-annihilation. The poet replaces self with situation, turning himself, as in were, inside out, so that the center of “knowing who you are” becomes the circumference of uncertainty. The poem as locus mirrors this dynamic, since it is a measured place, possibly with stanzas (rooms), which has an infinite capacity to contain everything outside it, including the poet. To have identity means to be alone. Loneliness is the anxiety that compels us to identify with an other or with otherness. To disappear into a place. To empathize.
James Wright has as many place names in his poems as anyone I can think of: William Duffy’s hammock in Pine Island, Minnesota, just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota, Outside Fargo, North Dakota, etc. The poet, often lost and alone, wants to find himself in a place, partly, I think out of the fear of losing himself, not in self-annihilation, but in self-pity, and a deeper sense of loneliness. Also, I think that the desire to claim to be in an actual place betrays a desire to gain the permission to indulge in a kind of Yeatsian magic such as stepping out of one’s body and breaking into blossom. It doesn’t, in the long run, work. The magic that does work is in poems like “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia, Has Been Condemned”, where the poet does not claim to actually be in Wheeling, West Virginia, and “At the Executed Murderer’s Grave”, where the poet actually admits to not being at the grave, and further admits to his own defeat, shame, and sense of exile. James Wright is a tragic poet, not an elegiac one. In his early poems he is at his best when he admits to being exiled from a place, such as the Ohio of his youth, and that he can’t escape personality and emotions.
Near the end of his life, James Wright, ironically finds a home and a sense of self- knowledge and well-being, despite his proximity to mortality, in self-exile in Italy, where he is not a native and therefore to some degree does not know where he is. But exile is a sense of place he knows intimately. Many of these poems are prose poems, many take place near rivers, many take place at noon, when time seems to stop, leaving only place, and many of the poems inhabit the moment of their own composition. They are self-annihilated descriptions of actual surroundings and show a remarkable sense of ease in relation to uncertainty.
One such poem is "The Secret of Light". It begins with a familiar mention of being alone, but instead of a claim to loneliness, the poet says, “I am sitting contented and alone," a major departure in method from the early work. In completely unadorned prose, the poet tells us that he is sitting on a bench in a little park near Palazzo Scaligere in Verona. The familiar naming of place here, however, is not the same as the hammock and William Duffy’s farm, which is a way of claiming, among other things, the permission to say that “The droppings of last year’s horses/ Blaze up into golden stones.” Really? Last year’s horses? Blazing golden stones? This is one of Wright’s most famous poems, but I don’t buy it. In the “Secret of Light” there is no irritable reaching after magic. Instead there is an honestly uncertain description: "…glimpsing the mists… as they shift and fade…"
There are several parallels drawn in the composition of this poem. The first and perhaps most obvious, though only implied, is between the river Adige and the Ohio, the difference for the poet being that the Adige is unburdened of his own biography. The battlements above the river have long outlived the violence and death that put them there. They are relics. They belong to eternity, beyond conflict.
The river is personified, “restored to its shapely body," before we are introduced to the “startling woman” that parallels the river and engenders the poem. She is seated directly in front of the poet, so that she, in a way, mirrors him as he tries to describe her. His attempt begins with a somewhat muddled conceit about a “perfectly cut diamond” that a jeweler (another parallel to the poet) studies for years as he struggles to achieve the “necessary balance between courage and skill” to strike the stone open and reveal its inner light. As the poet struggles for a similar balance, the woman rises from her bench and disappears. The poet “will never see her again”. He follows her into an invisible Verona the way Keats follows his nightingale: only in imagination. He imagines her meeting her lover (his stand-in), and he empathetically wishes them well. The poet stays where he is and imagines the woman placing a “flawless [like the diamond] and fully formed Italian daybreak into [his] hands.”
Wright says, “The very emptiness of the park bench just in front of mine is what makes me happy.” He has accepted the fact that the woman has left him and his poem and re-entered life, which the poet cannot do, since he has come to a point where he can honestly pray, as Yeats does to the sages depicted on the gold mosaic of a wall, to “Consume my heart, away; sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal/ It knows not what it is; and gather me/ Into the artifice of eternity.” He is “startled to discover that [he] is not afraid.”
Wright mentions the lover’s face, and then his own. The wind off the Adige that flutters past the now invisible woman reaches the poet, “happy enough to sit on this park bench alone.” And now the light inside the woman’s hair, the light inside the diamond, the light inside the lover’s body, and the light of the river Adige, all converge inside the poet and cause him to declare that he and the river are “both an open secret.”
The achievement of oneness with nature in poems (or in life, for that matter) is more often than not, fake. Much more convincing is an honest failure in that regard. “The Secret of Light”, however, begins and ends with aloneness in a foreign place, and the poet is “startled” (the word is used twice) to find himself happy “in mid-flight for a split [the word is used twice] second.” The poem performs Eliot’s “continual extinction of self," and the poet is rewarded with that rare sense of well-being and unity of sensibility that is so often sought in poetry and almost never realized.
This article originally appeared in American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. Copyright © 2009 by the Academy of American Poets. All rights reserved. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.
A Shifting Sense of Place
Four contemporary poets discuss where their work belongs in the world.

In his classic book Art as Experience John Dewey writes, “At every moment the living creature is exposed to dangers from its surroundings, and at every moment, it must draw upon something in its surroundings to satisfy its needs.” Dewey theorized that all art is metabolized through experience and our immediate environment, “not externally but in the most intimate way.” In their anthologized visions of place, classic poets could stroll through an orchid garden, stumble past a church, or kneel in the grass and feel sated and grounded. But today, where is the poet’s sense of place? Itinerant, polluted, untethered? Tweeted and Foursquared? Or is it still Romantic, still finding solace in nature, tripping over the transcendent on every morning stroll? I recently interviewed a few American poets with a distinct sense of place—particular to their surroundings but informed by their historical, literary, and political contexts—to find out where they are and how they see it.
* * *
Patricia Smith
As a poet, are you drawn to a particular place? Is there somewhere you keep returning to, literally or in your writing?

Lately, I’ve been drawn to the South—which is odd, since I wasn’t raised there, and have no particular recollection of having visited as a child. I think it’s because I’m intensely curious about the region that was home to both my mother and father before they came to Chicago as part of the great social migration of the 1940s and ’50s. I’m an only child—and since my father has died, and my mother considers the South a shameful and oppressive place that’s best forgotten, I guess I’m searching for roots. It’s frightening to have so many blanks in your own background.

Do you see a place differently after writing about it?

Constantly. You slow down your pace, peeking under rocks, sneaking around corners, tiptoeing down alleyways that you never dared. As a poet, you search for whatever gives a place its muscle and bone. After I’ve written about a place, there’s a moment when it stands in newly stark relief, vulnerable and unveiled. If you look long enough, you’ll see stories pulsing there.

Has your relationship to place changed since you shifted your focus from journalism to poetry?

Not really. No matter what kind of writing I’m doing, I always think of myself as a storyteller. The only things that change are the technical trappings of the story. A strong sense of place is vital in both genres—to differentiate is to grant more credence to one mode of storytelling over another. You’re no longer allowing the story a say in the way it wants to be told.
You mentioned in a Facebook thread that you don’t write nature poetry. Why is that?
Nature just wasn’t a presence in the place where I grew up. Sure, trees and bushes and grass grew in places, but concrete and glass were the order of the day. My parents’ way of introducing me to the world was to keep me away from it—so I didn’t have the romping through fields of wildflowers to draw upon. If I have to do research to write a nature poem, then there’s no sense in writing it. There are plenty of contemporary poets occupying that place—why should I strain toward something that’s so alien to me?

Hip-Hop Ghazal
By Patricia Smith

Gotta love us brown girls, munching on fat, swinging blue hips,
decked out in shells and splashes, Lawdie, bringing them woo hips.
As the jukebox teases, watch my sistas throat the heartbreak,
inhaling bassline, cracking backbone and singing thru hips.
Like something boneless, we glide silent, seeping ’tween floorboards,
wrapping around the hims, and ooh wee, clinging like glue hips.
Engines grinding, rotating, smokin’, gotta pull back some.
Natural minds are lost at the mere sight of ringing true hips.
Gotta love us girls, just struttin’ down Manhattan streets
killing the menfolk with a dose of that stinging view. Hips.
Crying ’bout getting old—Patricia, you need to get up off
what God gave you. Say a prayer and start slinging. Cue hips.
* * *
Todd Boss
As a poet, are you drawn to a particular place?  

So here’s the sad truth: I’ve resented every place I’ve ever been. It isn’t “me,” or I don’t “fit in,” or it’s “too close to home,” or my wife isn’t happy there, or it’s not where I’d have chosen to live, or whatever. My parents moved from one farm to another out of desperation when I was six; the new farm turned out, when the snow melted, to be covered in acres of trash, and that experience—of digging out of someone else’s despoiled Americana—was formative for me.
So I’m of two minds about place. You could say my poetry is rooted in farm country, but I’m more inclined to say that the poems’ location is actually that sweet spot where pride in place collides with physical exertion and the expense of tears. You could show me the most pristine beach, and my mind would wander to bitter thoughts about what it takes to maintain it, how hard the earth worked to build it, what a tragedy it is that more people don’t appreciate it, how the surrounding development insults it. . . .
I was just reading in the Atlantic how the French government throws gobs of money at restoring old farmhouses into gîtes, or vacation rentals. That’s nice, but I have this nagging sensation that we’re all displaced agrarians, and the land is fast becoming more rebuke than respite. To live on such a planet as this, we should be ashamed, yes, but how deeply ashamed, and for which of how many reasons? To be a tourist in the very land I’ve raped; is that my moral compass (see also Adam and Eve)? Dunno, but it sure has the ring of purgatory.
The Sticks, by Todd Boss
my mother still mutters whenever
she remembers where we lived,
reciting then her one life sentence
of overlush underbrush, neighbor trash,
shoddy farms and fallen fences
and filthy Herefords knee-deep in
barnyard shit.
                        Ugh, she says, it makes
me sick. To have been stuck there,
with those hicks in Derision, Wisconsin,
a beer bottle’s throw from the poverty
line, her bleary eyes fixed on the stinking
horizon, her candle’s ends weeping
hot wax at their wicks.
[By permission of the poet]

* * *
C.D. Wright
This question is going to sound rather vague, but in general, I am thinking about your work in Deepstep Come Shining and One Big Self. How would you define your sense of place?

To be honest, even the phrase “a sense of place” feels quite drained of significance. I locate my work, situate it, because that is so real to me. Deepstep Come Shining emerged from a road trip with Deborah Luster through North and South Carolina and northern Georgia. We had an itinerary to visit outsider artists because we were focused on vision in all senses of the word. It is a visual work. It’s my big canvas.
One Big Self is situated in Louisiana. I don’t think the work Debbie did or that I did would have been the same if it had taken three other prisons elsewhere as its locus of perception. Louisiana is as defining as prison culture in that text. I’m just finishing a shorter text on Debbie’s current project, A Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish. Chorography (from χῶρος khōros; “place” + γράφειν graphein, “writing”) is a term deriving from the writings of the ancient geographer Ptolemy. Debbie chose the word chorography. I tried to talk her out of it because I said it would be misread repeatedly as choreography. But she stuck with it, and she was right to, though the misread sticks to it as well.
According to historians, “In his text of the Geographia (second century CE), Ptolemy writes that geography is the study of the entire world or large sections or countries of it, while chorography is the study of its smaller parts—provinces, regions, cities, or ports. Ptolemy implicitly would include the making of views (not simply maps of small regions) in this category, since he claims that chorography requires the skills of a draftsman or artist rather than those of a scientist, which are needed for the practice of geography. The term chorography fell out of use after the Renaissance as city views and maps became more and more sophisticated and required a set of skills that required not only skilled draftsmanship but also some knowledge of scientific surveying. Its use was revived by Ferdinand von Richthofen, uncle of Manfred von Richthofen (aka the ‘Red Baron’).”
The mapping of the city is integral to the subject. But as markers of the art, “a sense of place” and “finding one’s voice” have no resonance left. I might read/read out of/skim/leaf 40 books or more when I am working on a project that attaches to a particular place. It is all just to situate myself so I can navigate the material more effectively, and with greater awareness of its affect.

Lake Echo, Dear
By C.D. Wright

Is the woman in the pool of light   
really reading or just staring   
at what is written
Is the man walking in the soft rain   
naked or is it the rain   
that makes his shirt transparent
The boy in the iron cot   
is he asleep or still
fingering the springs underneath
Did you honestly believe   
three lives could be complete
The bottle of green liquid   
on the sill is it real
The bottle on the peeling sill   
is it filled with green
Or is the liquid an illusion   
of fullness
How summer’s children turn   
into fish and rain softens men
How the elements of summer
nights bid us to get down with each other   
on the unplaned floor
And this feels painfully beautiful   
whether or not
it will change the world one drop
* * *
Frances McCue
Is there a place you keep returning to, literally or in your writing?  

Yes. In that dream space, the one where writing lives for me, I return to the woods behind my childhood home near the Ohio River. Many times, I’d heard my grandfather say that he’d swum in the Ohio as a boy. It seemed so brave to me, slipping into all that mud with those twirling currents and no rocks or outcroppings to hang onto, that I imagined him clutching for a raft, one he’d fashioned out of logs. My grandfather told me that he remembered the church steeple poking up from the water during the river’s worst flood, the one that happened when he was small. He said that whirlpools were almost invisible to the naked eye; you could see them only from above. Boys drowned back then, just after the turn of the century. According to my grandfather, canoes of Little Miami Indians regularly came down the Little Miami River from small settlements and journeyed into the open water of the Ohio.
Do I remember this as part of the folklore that I’ve pinned to the triggering place near my childhood home? From that house, the one tucked behind the hill from the waterway, I might have walked up the path all the way to the top so that I could have a view of the magnificent river. But I didn’t. Instead, the little trail disappeared into a wrinkle of clay and rocks between two hillsides. I never ventured that far. Instead, I kept to the low-lying trails, climbed trees, and built little shelters out of branches and leaves.
I also return to the Bled, the raw desert on the fringes of Marrakesh. That’s where I lived for a year, and that’s the place my husband died. There’s a sickly river that runs through there—the Tensift. Most of the time it is a dry crevice in the land, a gulley of wizened clothing dried into the rocks and branches. When it runs, as it sometimes does after the melt up in the Atlas Mountains, the river is red.
Both of these places are ones I can’t get to often. They have ghosts lurking. They change. When I do see them, perhaps every decade in the case of my childhood home, those woods seem like a stage-set version of the woods I once knew. Memory and landscape warp together and make something utterly new. That’s why they are rich deposits for writing. I don’t really know them all that well. I knew them intimately at different times in my life, so my memory makes the act of imagining them a passionate, never-ending inquiry into blending human existence with some patch of earth.
Do you see a place differently after writing about it?  
I do. It’s like I’ve done something that has let me emotionally take control of the place. I feel differently about the Milltown Bar (a Montana bar that [poet Richard] Hugo frequented often) now that I’ve put the goat’s head over the bar into prose.
Is there a type of place you would never write about?  
My own bedroom. Hey, private.
When I talked to C.D. Wright, she said the phrase “a sense of place” is nearly drained of all meaning. What would you choose to replace it?
The torque between temperament and terrain.
The Bled
by Frances McCue

Note: Bled, n. French and colloquial Arabic, bled, representing (depending on context) balad vast stretch of country or bilad land, country. In parts of North Africa formerly under French rule: an uncultivated wasteland; the hinterland behind a fertile, populated area. Also, in extended use: a rolling plain or other open stretch of land.
Some passionate gospeller, some high energy missionary
in the desert could find Spiritus Mundi or the vast and
trunkless mass of disintegrating saints in the oracles
we visit and awaken from. God is God is god:
rough beast the rapture promises, shepherd who releases
virgins, king who offers keys to heaven’s lock-up.
Christians and Muslims who pray for kingdoms to fall,
sand-tongued fate mongers, taunt the horizon’s promise:
sanguine city and sky spread to murk under the dust
from burnt things. They await the raw animal.
Our desert flattens between the D’jibblets, little mountains,
and the great Atlas. How did we come to adore the bled?
Drain and suck of such a place, mat where Europe
dumps goods that lasted not a week, where goats eat
plastic bags, nudging scraps and their innards wrap
upon themselves, cruel knots caught until even
goats cannot heal. Where Sheep give birth and drag
bloodied lambs. One could see the frozen, scalded acre,
flashed with heat and cold, the brick-chunked
rocks on the cusp of sand, the not-so-far Sahara.
We live here. A family transplanted from the damp
moss and dark of America’s Northwest into the heat,
our rooms opening to the derbs in the medina,
old city, and out to the hinterlands. The air:
bled-tinged with smoke or cumin, oranges and the sights:
watchful farmers, wagon pullers and women wearing
red and orange skirts and torn sandals, pumping water.
Artichokes blooming thorny stars and bougainvilleas
splattering. Pomegranate trees flowering red, chard
going scarlet in the ground. It became our home,
near the scrimmage of sheep and the man who baked
cinderblocks with sand and ash, forming
his house from the bled. Alongside, the wrinkles of
would-be rivers—Ceres, Hades, Tensift— dry into beds.
Soot pocks the throat—stench pulls the stomach.
How my husband loved the place, goat paths
wobbling through sage and stone, how he followed them
home. To the men along the bled, tending sheep
making blocks, he’d waved. The air was dry and his
thirst took hold: “What is water but the generated soul?”
My husband’s organs: dumped and burned in the bled.
Heart, kidney, liver, spleen deflated and cindered
under the little minaret speakers, the calls to prayer.
All shade is tin under this heat. My daughter and I
crawled along our breath; we touched the slowest parts
of hours and days, pawing toward the beast, hunger for
blood to flow, red and warm, for the slathering wet
to bathe us. What is water but the wizened well?
We prayed for him to cross the bled and crush the sphinx,
The terrible chunking of it against the horizon’s spin—

[By permission of the poet]
Originally Published: January 19, 2011
"Place," by Dorothy Allison

What do you notice when you first enter a story? Who is talking? Who are they talking to? Where are they standing? What’s going on in the background? Is there a background?
There are two primary reasons why people read: boredom, which is my disease, and the need for reliable information, which is my constant motivation. I want to know everything. And I do, indeed, pick up books just to get the information that, in my upbringing, I missed. But I cannot tell you how many stories I pick up, and two people are having a conversation about their sex lives—which is a great place to begin, sex is always a good place to begin—but I don’t know who they are, and I don’t know where they are. It makes me crazy to step into a story and not know where I am. It makes me crazy when characters are arguing about sex, and I don’t know what sex means for them. The story seems to take place in no place.
Most Americans no longer have the history of growing up in a town where their parents grew up and their grandparents grew up and handed down stories about what came before. We no longer necessarily know the story of nobody goes down that road at night because the colonel killed a bunch of people out there and the ghosts walk the roads. Used to be that story was told for generations. No more. If you’re American, you’ve probably moved at least three times in the last decade. You probably do not live where you were born. Almost surely, you do not live close to your parents. Almost surely, you have to invent the place that you are writing -about.
And you’re jealous of people you think come from a place that is generally recognizable—Southerners, who all have porches and pickup trucks and grandmothers (never mind that bunches of Southerners come from Atlanta); Bostonians, who can remember that last great blizzard that shut down the city; people from the Chicago projects; Jews from Staten Island or Queens or the Lower East Side, who eat pickles and go to the Second Avenue Deli and also have a grandmother. Everybody knows these places and the people in these places are all assumed to share the same food and the same language. Their place is a given.
But if you’re from a place that no one knows, you have to invent it on the page.
I grew up among truck drivers and waitresses, and, for me, the place where most stories take place is the place that is no place for most other people. The truck stop: no place. The diner: no place. The grocery store: an empty landscape that you do not ascribe as being a real place. But for me those places are real places, with a population I recognize and can describe, a people I love even if they do not always love me.
I can give you detail. I can describe for you the tile they use in most truck stops because truckers have a horrible tendency to puke after having drunk great quantities of beer on top of chili. I know the colors of those tiles. I know, in fact, why 7-Elevens are designed the way they are. I’ve worked there. I recognize why diners are they way they are—why, in fact, I’ll make more money waiting on a booth than on the counter. Those places are real places for me. You probably read my stories to learn more about diners. And waitresses. And truck drivers. And I read to learn about the Jews in Brooklyn, the fishermen of Maine, and the combine drivers in Iowa. I’m lusting after those people I know little about: Bostonians who run along the Charles River in shorts even on snowy gray mornings, South Americans who live halfway up a hillside and speak Portuguese, Amish who somehow wound up in Hawaii and live out near Hilo and grow mangoes and passion fruit. All of these people are profoundly exotic to me, and I ache to know their secrets—especially their secret places.
Place is often something you don’t see because you’re so familiar with it that you devalue it or dismiss it or ignore it. But in fact it is the information your reader most wants to know.
When I went to college, I would sneak into other people’s dorms and look in their rooms. I wasn’t out to rob anyone but to learn about who they were and what they had. That, too, is place. All the stuff you’ve got that you don’t see is place—and me, I am your reader, and I want to know all about it. Your reader comes into your narrative to steal knowledge—who you are and what is all around you, what you use, or don’t use, what you need, or fear, or want—all that sweet reverberating detail. It is just like me going into those dorm rooms and taking a good solid look around. Your stuff provides telling details from which I can derive all kinds of information about you. I can imagine your self-consciousness, your prejudices, your need to be in control, and maybe even what you are willing to risk or share or not risk or not share. I am making you up in my mind, deriving you from clues you provide, you and your story.
So let’s review what place is.
Place is visual detail: manicured grass or scrubby weeds, broken concrete or pristine tarmac glistening with morning dew. Place is conditions: weather, atmosphere. Are the roads crowded or are they empty? When you step outside your house in the morning and you hit that clean, cool sidewalk, are there people walking around? Are they looking at you or are they looking away? Are you lonely? Are you nervous?
Place requires context. Is it responsive? Does it notice me? Or is it porcelain, pristine, and just ignoring my passage through? Are there people on the street who flinch when I smile at them? Is there a reason they do that? Place is where the “I” goes. Place is what that “I” looks at, what it doesn’t look at. Is it happy? Is it sad? Is it afraid? Is it curious?
What I am trying to say is that place is not just landscape—a list of flora and fauna and street names. That’s not place, that’s not even decent research. Which brings me to my other point.
I cannot abide a story told to me by a numb, empty voice that never responds to anything that’s happening, that doesn’t express some feelings in response to what it sees. Place is not just what your feet are crossing to get to somewhere. Place is feeling, and feeling is something a character expresses. More, it is something the writer puts on the page—articulates with deliberate purpose. If you keep giving me these eyes that note all the details—if you tell me the lawn is manicured but you don’t tell me that it makes your character both deeply happy and slightly anxious—then I’m a little bit frustrated with you. I want a story that’ll pull me in. I want a story that makes me drunk. I want a story that feeds me glory. And most of all, I want a story I can trust. I want a story that is happening in a real place, which means a place that has meaning and that evokes emotions in the person who’s telling me the story. Place is emotion.
So I’m going to say some unscrupulous, terrible, horrible things that are absolutely true in my mind, if not in yours:
Central Florida is despair.
New York City is sex.
California is smug.
Boston has never gotten over Henry James.
Seattle and Portland lie about their weather.
Iowa City is one hotel room and a chlorine stink away from the suburbs of hell.
I keep a list. I keep track of the places I have been and what I have decided about those places from stories I have experienced or read or heard or dreamed. It’s a writer’s game, but also a game for anyone who grew up with a sense of not knowing much and trying to figure out what everyone else knows or thinks they know.
Now I’ll tell you the place I don’t want.

A motel in Iowa City whose windows open onto the swimming pool. Have you been there? Not a Motel 6 or a Days Inn. Probably a Sheraton, maybe the Hyatt, but more likely the Marriott, and definitely not the Four Seasons.
For a year I took a picture of every motel room I stayed in. I lined them up. The only thing different as the year went on was that I was more and more often in rooms with minibars. And you could tell it was a minibar. That was the only difference I could see. The bed is always the bed. There is always a TV; there is always a remote control. Sometimes there are extra pillows. Sometimes there aren’t.
It’s nowhere. It’s no place. And there you are.
If you’re lucky, Oprah is on at eleven thirty at night. And you can check out what she’s done lately. Try, try, try not to start channel-hopping and watching the ads. You can’t afford any of that stuff anyway. It’s the middle of the night, three o’clock in the morning, and you’re in a room in which the art on the wall is a stylized painting of a flower or an unknown landscape. And I do mean an unknown landscape. Someone is doing these paintings and making money, but it’s not an actual artist and that landscape is nowhere you recognize. Also, the mattress is kind of soggy, and you’ve got one of those covers that you are too hot if you have it on you and too cold if you pull it off. You’re awake at three o’clock in the morning and you are nowhere; this is not a place.
Hyatts, Sheratons—that’s where all those stories take place in which there is no landscape, in which there is not the mention of a tree or the grass or the weather. There is no weather in a Hyatt. Stories that take place in no place—why would you leave out the thing that will most bring alive what you’re trying to do? You think the most important thing is that confident voice of that “I” narrator who, let’s be clear, is really you when you were twenty-two, and they didn’t treat you right, didn’t fuck you right, didn’t love you right—Momma, first lover, Daddy, I don’t care who it was. But I want the story to burn me. I want the page to crisp my fingers.
You were in that room with him when he said no, he did not want you, and you walked out of the room and it felt as if you were bleeding into your own belly. You went down the stairs, out into the night, and you smelled—what did you smell? Was there the distinct odor of spilled beer on the steps? Were you thinking about how when your daddy left that was all that you could smell on the front steps after he was gone? Is it torn-up weeds that you smell? Somebody was sitting on those steps earlier and she was crying, and she didn’t have anything else so she reached down and pulled up the grass and ripped it, and you can smell the torn grass in the air.
Or is it your own skin? You had put on perfume. You had bathed carefully. You had washed your hair. You had used that new soap with lavender scent and flowers. You wanted to be wanted, and no one can ever understand how terrible it felt to be told, no, I don’t want you. But you smell your skin, and it stinks of sour disappointment, and you don’t want you. You can understand why he didn’t want to have sex with you. That’s place—the smell in the air, the memory, the association. It’s all history. You are somebody real who comes from somewhere, and you have been hurt in specific, deep, terrible ways.
Or, it could be that other story.
You have been cared for and loved and made joyful. You expect good things. You expect love. Take a deep breath and what do you smell? Mmmm. You’ve opened your suitcase and your mother, or your girlfriend, or—oh, my God—your husband of one year who still gets tears in his eyes when you reach for him has tucked something inside. You open up the suitcase and lying there, wrapped in plastic, carefully prepared, is a sugar cookie with anisette. The smell is enough to make your whole body flush with lust. You open it up and breathe it in; you won’t eat it now. You think about it. Your mother or your lover or your husband or your best friend sneaked that in there for you to find. You are a person to whom wonderful things happen. And tonight, tonight, when you come back to the Hyatt, more wonderful things will happen. The manager will have left chocolates and a bottle of some perfect complimentary wine, with a glass sitting by it waiting for you, or maybe there will be strawberries dipped in chocolate. You are a person to whom wonderful things happen.
That’s place, a place more of us should get to more often.
Place is people.
Place is people with self-consciousness.
Place is people with desire.
My major reason for reading stories is that I get off on knowing other people’s secrets. On every level, I get off—I tremble from the power of the sexual charge of the secret and the electrical excitement of suddenly discovering the connections I never made before. I want to know everything and so I need an actual person walking the landscape, responding to it, telling me, in fact, how he or she wound up there. What was the decision-making process? Who is that person in this place? I need to know the person walking the landscape, seeing the landscape, remembering another landscape, putting that landscape on top of this landscape. Then suddenly I’m not in one place, I’m in two places. And there’s a narrator, and the narrator is making language choices, and that’s a landscape. It’s a landscape on the page.
Story is negotiated. Story happens from what we put on the page and what the reader takes off the page. The reader does not always take off the page what we imagine we have put there. Because, as I said, there’s a whole bunch of stuff you don’t even see anymore. And you don’t know who your reader might be. When I read your story, I read it with my imagination and my landscape, my sense of place. I can see the place you tell me only through the filter of the places I can imagine, unless you’re really good. And it’s not going to be good enough just to tell me that a place is all red brick and that kind of off-white limestone. That’s not sufficient. I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, with clapboard houses. No bricks. What I have is the landscape in which I grew up and the landscapes that I have adapted from every damned book I’ve ever read, and every damned book I’ve ever read is in the back of my head while I’m reading yours. Every place every other writer has taken me is in me.
Can you take me somewhere no one else has?
Can you show me a place I don’t already have a reference for?
Place is the desire for a door. Place is the desire to get out of where you are. Place is experiencing where you are as a trap. Are you in hell on your way to heaven? Are you momentarily safe in heaven, fearful of falling into hell? Characters that interest me, about whom I am most curious, are always engaged in a journey.
Fear is a wonderful place for writers. A character who is genuinely terrified is in the best place because the reader is going to be terrified as well. The reader is going to be sweaty, anxious, wanting something to happen, turning pages. It’s a better place if there are loud noises about which a character is not entirely sure of the cause. Fearful places. The lights have gone out, and the rain’s coming down so hard, and loud, she can’t hear anything, and it’s dark and somebody might be chasing her and she’s running and the floor is slippery. The tiles are slippery, they’re old and they’re worn and she’s barefoot and sweaty and sliding, and she thinks she can hear somebody coming behind her. She can hear his boots. She can smell his sweat. He’s close enough that she can smell him. He’s real. Oh God! He’s so damn close! And you know what? You know what?
It’s better if the fear is real.
You’re sitting at home. You’re reading this essay. The lights aren’t going to go off; it’s not raining. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Probably not, anyway. Unless, wait. It’s not just anybody running up the hall; it’s you—not second-person you, first-person YOU. I’m describing you; I’m in your body. Now, how do I make you know this? How do I make you know you’re running up the hall, and you’re terrified, and sweat’s pouring off you, and you’re sliding on the slippery linoleum, and the person behind you with a knife is somebody you have reason to be afraid of?
I’m going to use specific details. I’m going to put you in Portland, Oregon. It’s July. It’s the last night of a writing conference. Everybody was drinking heavy. The students were all exchanging addresses and phone numbers. And you, you wouldn’t give this one guy your phone number. You were feeling really full of yourself because your workshop teacher liked that story you showed her and she said she wanted to read the rest of it and you could send it to her, and you were just feeling so good, and good stuff happens to you, it always does. And you go back to the dorm later than you’d planned, but there’s nobody else in the dorm. Listen. It’s raining. And the back door slams and there he is. And you didn’t give him your phone number, and he’s like, “Who the fuck do you think you are?” He’s coming up the hall and you’re barefoot and you’re sweating and you’re running and the lights go out and it’s raining hard. And just before the lights go out, you see what he has in his hand: he’s going to gut you from front to back. Run hard, run fast. It’s a specific place. It is your specific tender body that your momma loves so much. That’s place.

Dorothy Allison is the bestselling author of several novels including Bastard Out of Carolina, Cavedweller, and Two Or Three Things I Know For Sure. The recipient of numerous awards, she has been the subject of many profiles and a short documentary film of her life, Two or Three Things but Nothing For Sure.
Essay from The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House.